The Queen and country debate: a summary

Over the past couple of weeks we have looked at a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of the famous 1933 “King and country” debate.

Let’s remind ourselves of the wording of this motion – “This house would not fight for Queen and country”. This means that if you argue for not fighting you are for the proposition, and if the reverse you are in opposition. I just thought I’d clarify that, because it seems counter intuitive. Whoever posted the videos on YouTube certainly found it so: the captions consistently used the words proposition and opposition the wrong way round.

This debate was not about the 1933 one. Had it been so, one of the speakers in opposition might have noted that pacifism was a Fashionable Piety at that time. Aldous Huxley, Rebecca West, J.B.Priestley, A.A.Milne, and many others of the intelligentsia claimed noisily that if Britain had no aspiration to military strength it would present no threat and would therefore not be attacked. Bertrand Russell in Which Way to Peace argued this at length. Beverley Nichols, in Cry Havoc, likewise.

And this sort of attitude was not merely passive: Bernard Shaw, visiting the USA that same year, actually went out of his way to sing Hitler’s praises and claim that the Fuehrer was doing wonderful things for Germany.

They were all shown by events to be profoundly wrong. Fashionable pieties are usually wrong: like other forms of fashion, what seems self-evident today is manifestly absurd tomorrow. Perhaps I shall address this phenomenon in greater depth in a future posting. For now I’ll just say that you should always be suspicious of any opinion held by a consensus of ‘clever’ people. Seek empirical evidence: you will probably do so in vain. These pieties owe their short life to a diet of no more than peer approval.

The situation today is slightly different. People have been made cynical by the Iraq war. All six of the speakers at this debate were against it. The huge popular disquiet in Britain before the Iraq invasion was barely mollified by Blair’s assurances that the world was in danger from Sadam’s weapons of mass destruction. It says a great deal about the low esteem in which politicians are currently held that there was no great surprise when it was revealed that those WMDs were fictional. An illegal war, waged upon a lie!

There’s an old Music Hall joke that goes like this –
I say, I say: today I saved a pretty girl from being molested.
How did you do that?
I controlled myself.

I think of that gag whenever I hear political leaders boasting about how they have presided over peace. I can’t think of a single war that was not started by the ruling classes. People don’t start wars: people play football between the trenches on Christmas Day.

I’m not calling for the abolition of politicians, though sometimes with most of the current bunch the idea has appeal. A friend of mine in a pulpit yesterday told us that we should not fear chaos (I probably should not have brought him up: he wouldn’t ever stoop to mentioning me in his sermon); but someone has to run things. Nevertheless politicians should be kept on a tight rein of accountability. They have of late been striving with alarming success to loosen those reins. We should increase our vigilance and resist. We obviously understand that their work puts them in possession of a wider picture than we are permitted to see, but still they are our servants not our masters. Back to this debate.

What made it so good was the robust articulacy of the arguments. Ben Griffin was particularly robust, even intemperate; but having walked the walk he was entitled to talk the talk. The empathy he expressed for civilians caught in crossfire surely struck a chord with his opponent Rory Stewart who in his relatively young life has gone so far out of his way to meet and learn about those civilians – literally by walking the walk. He seemed to scorn the Iraq war by virtually ignoring it and pointedly holding up Bosnia as an example of justifiable conflict. What an outstandingly accomplished speaker Stewart is! Nikolai Tolstoy changed the thrust completely when he examined the argument in its historic and constitutional context. Gareth Porter, being American, expressed alarm at American militarism; and I chose to interpret that as American politicians’ militarism. Malcolm Rifkind concluded the debate with some laughs punctuating some pithy and well-argued points.

The only other debates that this blog has covered in this depth were the God debate and the China debate. This one, in the choice and balance of speakers and the consequent quality of both speaking and argument, was best. Tribute must be paid to those who put it all together. As the Union’s librarian and as the one who opened the debate, I’d like to think that Ben Sullivan had a hand in its organisation. I was not very polite about his contribution, and with good reason – his speaking was inept and his arguments puerile, so I’d like to think he warrants a bouquet that might slightly modify my brickbats.

Malcolm Rifkind concludes the Queen & Country debate

For a couple of weeks we have been working our way through the speeches that comprised a debate held by the Oxford Union to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most famous debate the Union has staged. In 1933 the motion, “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country” was carried. What would happen when a similar motion was proposed in 2013? We have heard from Ben Sullivan, Ben Griffin and Gareth Porter for the proposition, and from Rory Stewart and Nikolai Tolstoy for the opposition. Now it is the turn for Malcolm Rifkind to conclude the debate with one more speech for the opposition.

As I prepare to watch his speech I find myself considering how many different ways he could choose to follow, summarise and conclude what has already been said, and to what extent he will vary his tone to blend with the decorum set by his predecessors. The golden rule, when in doubt, is to trust your own game. A seasoned performer as he is, and the decorum’s having varied so much already, I expect him to grab the proceeding by the throat and bend it to his will.

He starts by making the audience laugh. I know every one of the jokes, but then I am a great deal older than this audience. There’s a moral here: if you are addressing students you can afford to dust off and recycle material that you thought had completely run out of steam.

He also recalls that he has been here before, when he took part in the 60th anniversary debate on the same motion. I wonder whether he is going to recycle some of that material also. I wouldn’t blame him – if it works.

It is at 3:19 that he finally gets down to cases. “The choice we are being asked to make…” At this point he seamlessly moves into a higher gear. He claims that the other side had essentially condemned all wars, despite their attempts to qualify their declarations. He names justifiable wars, citing The Falklands and of course World War II. He hits us with a startling statistic to the effect that – the 1933 debate notwithstanding – when WWII broke out, of the 3,000 Oxford students eligible to fight, 2,600 volunteered.

He concedes that there are unjust wars, and he is the one that identifies the elephant that has been quietly growing in the room. All six of the speakers, he included, were against the Iraq War: it was unnecessary and illegal. Yet the previous Gulf War to liberate Kuwait was quite different, being unanimously sanctioned by the United Nations. His speaking tone and power have grown to oratorial dimensions; so it is highly unexpected when suddenly he introduces two more jokes, just as old as the others and just as successful at harvesting laughs. But he hasn’t finished with the serious stuff: he is still beating the drum for the war that is last-resort and just. He even cites St Augustine. But he is cleverly keeping the audience receptive by occasionally mixing in the unexpected laughs. He knows what he is doing.

So ends the debate.

The motion “This house would not fight for Queen and country” is carried.

Gareth Porter fascinates to distraction

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition. Nikolai Tolstoy then added a well conceived historical and constitutional context.

The next speaker was the American author and journalist, Gareth Porter.

The first impression is the complete absence of paper. He will shoot from the hip; and accordingly I mark him as knowing what he’s doing.

We might expect his arguments in favour of the proposition to be that of a pacifist., but immediately he puts us right. He lays out his stall as being not a pacifist but a realist. He will address this issue not in the abstract, but through analysing specifically the merits of the current conflicts and those we can reasonably expect to emerge in the coming decade.

The audience will have been supplied with his potted biography, which I suspect is more of a bibliography – he has published several books on the subject of war. He fleshes out this ethos by explaining how he graduated from college just before America entered the Vietnam War. In his own words –

Being of draft age powerfully concentrates the mind.

That was why he became a student of American militarism; and now watches as that same militarism has caused the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. The stakes involved in these conflicts, he says, are much greater than the news media and our governments have allowed us to know. He believes the threat to the American and British people is as great as that from Nazi Germany. So he lays out his arguments quietly and soberly. It is arresting, alarming stuff. And yet…

I repeatedly find myself thinking tangentially. My mind shoots off in its own direction, causing me often to have to scroll back to where he lost me. I suspect it will also happen with you.

It is an easy, common, but wrong assumption that if this happens to your audience you must be boring them. More often, as in this case, he says fascinating things that trigger lively constructive thoughts that whisk me away somewhere. Porter is being a victim of his own success, stimulating me so much that I miss important stuff. The audience in that hall could not scroll back as I did, so they would forever have lost important portions of his speech. What is to be done? Is there a remedy?

Yes. There are several devices that hook and retain an audience’s attention without the necessity of watering down that stimulus. It amounts to a judicious mixture of structure and a few devious tricks. Essentially, though Porter has mastered the speaker’s key skill of speaking spontaneously without notes and he exercises it with expressive and inventive turns of phrase, he hasn’t mastered a speaker’s (as distinct from writer’s) structure rules. How I’d like a quiet hour’s conversation with Gareth Porter!

It’s a good speech, an important speech. I was glad every time I scrolled back.

Nikolai Tolstoy enters the ‘Queen and Country’ fray

The Oxford Union recently held a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. As happened in 1933 the debate was opened by the Union’s librarian, in this case Ben Sullivan. The opposition was kicked off by a superb speech from Rory Stewart which was followed by a bitter and brilliant diatribe from Ben Griffin for the proposition.

Today, speaking against the motion, we hear from Nikolai Tolstoy.

Dandified though he may be (Where did he get that collar? For that matter, why did he get that collar?) Nikolai Tolstoy is nobody’s fool. He is following two speeches whose power would eclipse most offerings. He knows the rule that you should always play to your strength. His strength is very clear. He is a historian with a string of books to his name, many dealing with war.

He launches straight in to an analysis of the 1933 Oxford Union debate with particular reference to its background, the most immediate ingredient in which was The Great War which had ended merely fifteen years earlier. He holds that Britain entered it for a noble cause, and supplies us with a wealth of reasons. In the process he readily concedes that war in general is horrible and that not all wars are for a noble cause. Not for the first time in this debate we are steered towards the unmistakeable inference that Iraq and Afghanistan are ghastly errors.

Not only dandified, but patrician and speaking in opposition to the motion!  How easily could we assume him to be a mindless Establishment glove puppet. Big mistake: the author of Victims of Yalta is not blind to his country’s capacity for moral crime.

Queen and Country! Tolstoy turns to the first of these, and immediately seems to make the distinction between the institution and the person. The institution – the Crown – supplies the focal point by which to identify the nation. Its existence also holds at bay any overweening political ambition with ideas above its station. When turning to the person who currently wears it, he admits to having been in love with her. He narrates a story from his days in the army. I shall not spoil it, except to congratulate him on the excellent laugh it harvested from what could easily have been a resistant audience.

He closes with a well chosen quotation. Up to that moment he had prompted himself with merely occasional glances at paper beside him on the box. Now he unashamedly picks up the paper to read words by Hilaire Belloc. That is the correct way to use paper if you use it at all.

This is a good speech: well considered, well balanced and well delivered. It maintains the gratifyingly high standard this debate has set.

Anniversary ‘King and Country’ Debate. This one is opened by Ben Sullivan

Some months ago this blog covered all the speeches in an Oxford Union debate on the subject of belief in God. Today I want to start an equally comprehensive coverage of a debate to mark the 80th anniversary of probably the most (in)famous debate the Union has ever held – “This House would under no circumstances fight for its King and country”. If I recounted more details of that debate I might ineptly spoil what speakers will tell you.

In this debate, whose motion is “This house would not fight for Queen and country” the speakers are –

  1. Ben Sullivan, librarian of the Oxford Union [for the motion]
  2. Rory Stewart [against]
  3. Ben Griffin [for]
  4. Nikolai Tolstoy  [against]
  5. Gareth Porter [for]
  6. Malcolm Rifkind [against]

– and I will summarise the debate afterwards.

First impressions are important, and Sullivan’s first impression is that he is a talking head. Does he need to consult his paper to tell us that his voice is husky? No of course not, so immediately we are informed that his script is his security blanket.

There are, nevertheless, a few circumstances under which it is appropriate to read your material; and shortly after he begins Sullivan meets one of them. As first speaker, and also his being Librarian of the Union, he is the host.  Therefore it falls to him to introduce the debate and its speakers. While he is doing that, why doesn’t he just pick up the paper and read? The audience will instantly understand that, as he is giving them detailed information about all the speakers, he owes it to them to get all his facts precisely correct. Apart from a bit of stumbling, which he might not have done had he been holding his paper in front of him, he does these introductions competently. His speech actually begins at 4:06.

At this point he reaches miles above his competence. He has not even the first idea of how to prepare or deliver a speech. I am happy to leave it to subsequent speakers to fillet his arguments if they wish, but I am not happy watching this. This is wall-to-wall cringe. He reads every word, stumbles the whole time, speaks too fast, and is just generally incoherent. It is safe to assume that he is bright, which is why he is librarian (and even at Oxford in the first place) so he could easily learn how to speak. In the mean time I can only say that I have had pleasanter headaches.

Being of stern stuff, and conscientious on behalf of my readers, I endured the speech to the end. Thus I witnessed a moment (at 11:41) that managed to cause me to wince even while I was mid-cringe. If you are going to be overtly pedantic you must first be sure you are correct or you will lock yourself into a pillory.

“…whomever he may be…”

…is incorrect. The verb ‘to be’ cannot have an object, so the accusative version of ‘whoever’ is ghastly in this context. It’s a little precious in any spoken context. Had he been shooting this from the hip I might have forgiven it, but he actually wrote down that horror.

I strongly urge Ben Sullivan to get some lessons; and I hope for his sake that subsequent speakers in this debate are courteous enough to let him down lightly. We shall see.